All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The Walnut Street Theatre production of “High Society” is a curiosity in two distinct and separate ways, one having to do with its performances, the other regarding Arthur Kopit’s unnecessary rearranging and cheapening of the show’s source, Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story.”
Secondary characters played by Jenny Lee Stern, Alexis Gwynn, Dan Schiff, and Grace Gonglewski far outshine the leads making you look more forward to scenes with Dinah or Liz and Uncle Willie than for passages with central figures such as Tracy, Dexter, and Mike who should claim your focus. Megan Nicole Arnoldy has some fine moments as Tracy, the outspokenly independent aging debutante who is about to embark on a second marriage. Arnoldy understands Tracy’s sense of humor, and her cool, direct way of presenting herself, but she excels in the role while singing and flags a little when it comes to tossing off Tracy’s sarcastic bons mots or creating chemistry between Tracy and any of her three love interests.
Paul Schaefer is totally off base as C.K. Dexter Haven, mistaking snobbishly aloof diffidence that shows no sign of personality or savoir faire for the easy nonchalance that more accurately denotes Haven’s “life-is-a-lark-let’s-not-be-so-serious” attitude. (Think Cary Grant. Think Bing Crosby.) The usually reliable Ben Dibble never gives the hard-bitten journalist cum sensitive writer Macaulay (Mike) Connor a consistent personality. Upon entrance, Dibble is almost unrecognizable. I thought, “Who is this older, dowdy looking man they cast to play a part made famous by Frank Sinatra and James Stewart?” It wasn’t until Dibble spoke that I knew who he was. That would have been OK — He is in character. — if his Mike wasn’t all over the place, an overly grumpy defender of the proletariat (an exaggeration of Barry’s intent) In the beginning and an immature, gymnastic lover in scenes that follow. The part that’s missing is the regular-guy romantic who may take a tough, realistic view of life but has a sardonic, rather than a mean, streak, and who can change his mind about people and situations when confronted with experience, this last being the point of “High Society.” that you can’t and shouldn’t judge anything from exterior evidence.
I knew how off-putting Schaefer and Dibble’s performances were when, at the Walnut, my preference for Tracy’s spouse was George, the stuffed-shirt parvenu that is supposed to be the joke, or goat, of “High Society.” Jon Reinhold, who plays George, at least comes off as roundly human and as sincere about what he believes and wants. Schaefer is a cigar-store stiff, and Dibble displays a series of unconnected Mikes, playing Mike’s mood of a moment without considering his entire character or his crucial purpose in Barry’s story.Reinhold, especially when he sings “I Worship You,” is actually ingratiating. He seems to be the everyday, hail-fellow-well-met chap that Schaefer and Dibble can’t muster for Dexter or Mike. George being totally acceptable, and possibly superior to his rivals, really confuses Frank Anzalone’s production for the Walnut since the obvious reject seems more likable than the characters intended to be Tracy’s lovers, men who should exude charm or dependability but don’t. I like it that George is not the cardboard simp he is usually portrayed as being. I wonder, when he is attractive, if George can be regarded as a genuine choice for Tracy, a true contender against Dexter and Mike for her hand. Again, that kind of interpretation clouds all that “High Society” is about. George’s unsuitability for Tracy triggers the romantic aspect of the play. If he appears as the best of three choices, where’s the conflict? Where’s the suspense?
Arnoldy, Dibble, and even Schaefer, at least have individual moments in which they add to the entertainment value of “High Society.” Choreographer Mary Jane Houdina aids them, especially Arnoldy, in that. Besides, Stern, Gwynn, and Schiff give you characters to watch. So the Walnut production moves briskly enough and provides entertainment. What Arthur Kopit had in mind when he adapted John Patrick’s 1956 screenplay of Barry’s 1939 comedy is the real mystery. One even the genius of Cole Porter cannot fully overcome.
“The Philadelphia Story” works on many levels, First and foremost, it has a strong story about one of America’s most elegant and glamorous society ingénues getting married. Weddings often lead to good plot lines, but Barry, and Patrick after him, add to the stakes by giving designers a chance to go for swank, something the Walnut’s Mary Folino misses entirely, and lending characters a polished patrician air that exudes class but reveals the basic reality of the characters, as Grace Gonglewski does to great effect in her Walnut portrayal of Tracy’s mother, Margaret Lord.
Beyond this surface drama, Barry puts two others to work. One has to do with Tracy’s choice of husband. Tracy is a free spirit who has her own mind and speaks it candidly, She also has a sense of fun. She presages the Kennedys in her ability to be sunnily athletic and more than a little teasing in her approach to life. She has been married once to C.K. Dexter Haven, the independently wealthy boy next door who opts to use his largesse to forgo everyday cares and leisurely sail the world to take in all it has to offer. He approaches life with humor, poking fun at the rules and traditions people are afraid to abjure, but he understands the ways of both society and the common man and is a contented figure who takes most matters lightly while seeing all matters for what they are. Dexter and Tracy each has a caustic side and can show impatience and flairs of temper. They agree that Tracy’s brand of carping, usually a call to upholding custom while claiming to defy it, is the reason of their divorce. Especially if she is in her cups at the time of her tantrum.
After marrying for love and adventure the first time, Tracy is taking a more practical approach to husband Number Two. Her choice for the wedding about to take place is George Kittredge, who worked his way from being a Pennsylvania miner to managing a mining company, one owned in “High Society,” by the Lords. Jon Reinhold gives George light, human traits that render him unobjectionable company, but usually he is played as humorless man who is all business and can understand Tracy’s beauty and glamor but bristles at the way she flaunts convention, makes fun of rules and the petty worries of everyday people, and dances, jokes, or dramatizes with reckless abandon when the whim strikes. The audience is meant to quickly, decisively see George as a mismatch for Tracy. At the Walnut Schaefer’s wooden, narcissistic Dexter fills that bill while Reinhold’s George seem a possibility, Schaefer, Reinhold, and Anzalone all miss the boat on this score.
The other thread Barry employs has to do with prejudice and class structure. No one is the Lords’s world has to work. Tracy’s father, Seth, maintains his business, but it only adds to wealth that is plentiful and sustainable. Dexter may clip coupons to derive new income from his holdings. Everyone is well fixed and doesn’t have to consider employment to enhance his or her finances.
The journalists played by Ben Dibble and Jenny Lee Stern have a different lot. As they both say at one time or another, they work because they don’t enjoy starvation or destitution. Dibble’s Mike Connor makes his living writing exposes for Spy Magazine, but is also a serious novelist with one published book to his credit, a book he says sold a whole 300 copies, enough to make sure he’d have to keep his day job, but one that earned acclaimed, something Tracy affirms after procuring Connor’s book from the library to assess his merits. Liz represents the visual side. She accompanies Connor to Tracy’s wedding as a photographer, the story of the Lord-Kittredge nuptials replacing a planned Spy expose on Seth Lord’s philandering with a Manhattan chorine. Just as Mike is a talented writer, Liz is a talented painter, who cannot put brush to canvas because she must use her camera to pay rent and eat.
Mike and Liz are the unwelcome interlopers at the wedding, Tracy in particular resents their presence and at first conspires with Diana to lard on all of the luxurious excesses she knows the journalists expect and will find reportably obnoxious.
This is where Kopit turns tables on Barry. Liz, at one point, calls Mike a “Bolshi” and taunts him for loathing the wealth and amenities of the Lords. Liz’s gibe is sarcastic and meant to exaggerate Mike’s feelings about class differences. Nonetheless those feelings are have some philosophical basis and go into overdrive, but more by Mike observing the rich and opulent than from are a strong or activist political convicton. Dibble, and perhaps Anzalone, falls into the trap of taking Mike’s disdain too seriously. Rather than being cavalierly critical, Dibble’s Mike scowls and grouses as he and Liz sing “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.” a choice that backfires when Mike becomes the questioner and Liz the responder in the second verse of the number.
The class difference exist and are pronounced, but Barry uses them to show all people are the same and that Tracy can appreciate and understand Mike’s life and Mike can realize the truth and come to a similar understanding about Tracy’s. This is important not only because it gives “The Philadelphia Story” or “High Society” depth and texture but because Mike and Tracy become attracted to one another for the genuine traits that simmer beneath their polished or rough-hewn exteriors. They see their misjudgments based on class and stereotype and learn how ultimately unimportant they are. Mike is the romantic figure in “High Society.” All complications involving Tracy’s confusion and choices depend on that. Unfortunately, that idea only emerges on paper at the Walnut.
Too bad. Last year Dennis Garnhum did a magnificently perceptive job in bringing all aspects of “The Philadelphia Story” to the stage at Canada’s Shaw Festival. Garnhum and cast found every ounce of the romance while highlighting all of the social commentary in Barry’s work. It elevated “The Philadelphia Story” from a smart entertainment to an intelligent and thorough bit of writing, The best, writing that entertains as it enlightens because it emphasizes entertainment and lets anything deeper take care of itself.
Garnhum’s Shaw Festival production is a gold standard, one that might never be met again. Given that no “Philadelphia Story” or “High Society” I’ve ever seen, including the classic movies of both, have managed to create all that Garnhum did, I wouldn’t hold the Walnut Street Theatre accountable for mounting as monumental an achievement (although I don’t want it to be construed I don’t think the Walnut capable of such a feat; it’s 2014 production of “Good People” argues to the contrary).
What Garnhum did was special. The Walnut’s “High Society” doesn’t come near plumbing all that Barry or John Patrick put in “High Society.” Anzalone’s production remains firmly superficial, guided by plot and situation rather than romance or commenetary.
That would be fine is his leads lived up to the quality and entertainment ability of the supporting players — Stern, Gwynn, Schiff, and Gonglewski, but they don’t, so the Walnut’s “High Society” emerges as a misfire that salvages itself from disaster by the comic relief Stern, Gwynn, and Schiff supply, Gonglewski’s well-considered and intelligently realized Lord family matriarch, Houdina’s lively dances, a sharp ensemble that takes the role of a Greek chorus commenting on the action, and Porter’s score, much of which is interpolated from other musicals, but all of which gives performers a chance to excel and gives the audience a good time that takes their minds off the badly played book.
Frankly, Arthur Kopit, as Barry and Patrick’s adapter for the stage version of “High Society,” throws Frank Anzalone a nasty curve that ties his hands at critical junctures in the musical. Especially at instances when musical numbers are being introduced and in coping with the characters to whom certain songs are assigned.
Given the challenges Kopit creates for a director, Anzalone did well to keep the Walnut’s “High Society” as bright and vibrant as it mostly is. Kopit has given Anzalone a sow’s ear and he at least has crafted much of it into a sateen purse. The Walnut’s “High Society” is watchable and enjoyable as an amusement. It diverts without inviting any involvement in the story and without having the Broadway patina with which the Walnut usually, and justifiably, prides itself.
You wonder why Kopit doesn’t have more respect and appreciation of the material Barry and Patrick provided. One can understand him eliminating the character of Tracy’s brother, Sandy Lord, and making Dexter the one who negotiates the deal for Spy to trade coverage of Tracy’s wedding for the damaging expose on Seth Lord. What’s baffling is how thoughtlessly Kopit went about finding opportunities to add Porter’s tunes, how idiotically he reassigned crucial numbers from their original singers to other characters or the chorus, and how clumsily he varied Barry’s script, especially when it came to establishing any romantic bond between Tracy and Mike (the most important romantic bond in the play).
I can’t report Anzalone’s reaction, but I would have had a quiet but discernable fit if I saw the way the Porter score was fitted, as with a wedge, into the dialogue of “High Society.” Not to mention some of the plot economies that obliterate all opportunity of letting Dexter and Mike establish their complete character. making it difficult to concentrate on their individual and competitive relationships with Tracy, let alone a chance for the men to create a relationship, or even much of a reaction, to each other. Dexter is incomprehensively kept in the distance and has no scene in which he can have a meaningful talk with Tracy. Kopit plugs in the scene in which Dexter brings Tracy a scale model of their mutually beloved yacht, the True Love, as carelessly and as aimlessly as he wedges in the popular song that goes with it, a song the knowing in the Walnut audience would be eager to hear. It’s as if Kopit begrudges a moment for Tracy and Dexter to serious commune and perhaps rekindle the affection the True Love symbolizes and wants to cheat the “High Society” audience of a favored song.
After a crisp introduction by the chorus, the show opens fittingly enough with Tracy singing one of my favorite Porter songs, “Riding High,” which provides the right tone and attitude for Tracy to announce and jubilate over plans for her impending wedding to George Kittredge. Megan Nicole Arnoldy’s performance of the number and Mary Jane Houdina’s choreography promise great things. A subsequent book scene dulls matters a little because Arnoldy doesn’t seem to have as much command or smoothness in acting Tracy as she had in presenting the character musically. You see a performer playing who she thinks Tracy is rather than living the part. Schaefer and Dibble will soon convey the same problem.
Salvation is at hand. Alexis Gwynn finds the right combination of brattiness, tomboy directness, and inquisitiveness as the irrepressibly precocious Dinah. Gwynn is funny and clear in her part, establishing Dinah as a character we will look forward to seeing, mainly because she cuts holes in anyone’s pretensions, particularly Tracy’s, amusingly provides the exposition she’s assigned, and asks the questions the audience wants to know while remaining totally authentic as an early teenager and petulant younger sister. Grace Gonglewski provides excellent contrast as a calmly but firmly correcting mother who keeps Dinah’s precociousness in check while challenging Tracy is telling ways. Throughout the production, Gonglewski will be the picture of a woman of tradition and decorum who knows how to let her hair down and bend a little.,
Dan Schiff ups the liveliness quotient by entering as the ebullient Uncle Willie, perhaps a few notches too ebullient until you get used to Willie’s character and realize how necessary it is, for the good of the show, for Schiff is keep his performance at a high-pitched level and to provide comedy.
The problem comes when Gonglewski’s Margaret reminds a forgetful Willie that the pre-wedding gathering for the evening is at his house. All of a sudden, Schiff goes into Porter’s “Throwing a Ball Tonight,” certainly an appropriate song, but begun with no warning and little provocation.
It was as if Schiff, on his own, decided it was time to sing, and went at it. Normally, this would be fun and in keeping with the style of entertainment from the ’30s period in which “High Society,”
In this production, the burst into song seemed bizarre. There was no buildup to it, no idea that the song cue came at that time.
The jumping into numbers with no set-up will prove to be an ongoing problem in the Walnut production. It often seemed as if Kopit thought, ‘OK, enough talking, we’ll sing now’ and called for songs to just pop out of the blue. People would be talking, and all of a sudden, one character would be singing, or the chorus would provide what seemed like an impromptu interlude.
As Schiff did with “Throwing a Ball Tonight,” an individual character or the chorus could make a number pay, but the songs, good as they are, began to seem gratuitous. You know, my imagining of Kopit’s ‘Enough talking’ remark.
By coming at you by surprise, the songs seemed like a musical assault. They upset rather than establishing the rhythm of the show. Also, some numbers, like Dexter singing “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” had no obvious purpose except to “interrupt this program for a musical presentation.” Schaefer certainly did not present as a conundrum Dexter was perplexed enough to ponder.
With no reason for singing or no buildup to a song, several good tunes fell flat,
Worse were the reassignments of songs to characters different from the ones that introduced them in the 1956 movie and the already stated impression that Kopit could find no place for the musical’s most famous song, “True Love,” and just plopped in somewhere to get it done and out of the way.
The ham-handed placement of “True Love” totally took away any romantic significance the song has and failed, amazingly, to move “High Society’s” story one iota. Rather than seeming like a spontaneous memory that recalled genuine affection and mutual regard, the song became an afterthought, a bit of necessary business that had to be accomplished, then cast aside. Worse, if failed to make you think Tracy and Dexter are a natural couple and belong together.
At least “True Love” is sung by Tracy and Dexter. Another signature song, “Well, Did You Evah?” meant to be a showcase number for Sinatra and Crosby, and a bonding number for Mike and Dexter, is taken completely out of the hands of the principals and assigned to the chorus.
To be fair, the ensemble does a fine job with the number, remaining conspiratorial and gossipy, as if they were telling upstairs-downstairs secrets, but by giving an anonymous group, “Well Did You Evah?,” Kopit effectively nullifies any reason Dexter and Mike should be friends and that Dexter should heed Dinah’s call for help when Mike looks as if he’s going to get into real trouble with Tracy. From various points of view, including the basic dynamics of drama, Dexter and Mike have to have an attitude towards each other, preferably one of camaraderie based on seeing through the society folderol but knowing how to have fun with it and within it.
Kopit missed a key dramatic cue, one that affects the structure and tone of “High Society.” It’s an amateur’s mistake and shows no affinity for the musical form (even though Kopit has a Tony nomination for writing a musical libretto,’ “Nine”) of respect for the care both Barry and Patrick took to set up a scene in which Mike and Dexter become understanding pals.
Anzalone has no choice. He has to direct the book as written, But what disregard by Kopitfor what’s important to the story! It’s as if he ascribes to the old ’30s idea that a story is a necessary evil to get to the songs, an odd attitude for someone who is solely a writer, and who has no sense of how to ease music into a show, to take.
“Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” doesn’t fare much better, even though sung by Liz and Mike, as it was in the original. That’s because it is now done in a room in which every table and chair is littered with Tracy’s wedding presents instead at the front of the Lord home. One line about Mike being a Communist gives Dibble the idea to follow through with that idea, and the tenor and purpose of the song changes. It is supposed to be a light dose of criticism by witty people saying, “Get a load of this” and lying to each other that they wouldn’t want this largesse for themselves. At the Walnut, it turned into misguided, overserious doctrine. Can the politics. Go for the sarcasm and entertainment.
The real weakness of the Walnut’s production is the total mishandling of the romantic dynamics going on between Tracy, Mike, and Dexter, with George and Liz in the periphery.
At no time in the entire production do Arnoldy, Schaefer, or Dibble convince you, or even suggest, that Mike, Tracy, or Dexter has a jot of affection for one another. Forget chemistry, There’s not even a modicum of basic magnetic attraction.
Each performer seems to be giving his or her own take to a character without considering how the people on stage are going to intersect or form couples about which the audience can care.
You see where Tracy and Mike begin to understand each other, but you see no sign that they are having anything more than a getting-acquainted conversation like friends. At no time does Dibble or Arnoldy convey a look that says, “I’ve misjudged you. You’re pretty fascinating” or “Wow have I been blind! You are attractive and have depth that excites me.”
Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Not a shred of byplay, flirting, revelation, or surrender. The scene plays efficiently but coldly, It gives a basis for Mike and Tracy to take an interest in each other, but it conveys no provocation for romance, let alone the kind of obsession Mike forms.
The situation with Dexter is worse. Schaefer gives nothing. He is attractive in a unique way, but he suggests no ease. He certainly doesn’t persuade you his Dexter could possibly be interested in another person. Everything Schaefer does is minimal and without life or vivacity. How can Arnoldy act out a romance beside anyone who is so inert? It would be impossible. About the only one who can break through Schaefer’s ice is Alexis Gwynn, who by sheer strength of effort, manages to have what seems like a responsive conversation with him.
Kopit doesn’t help. If Dibble and Arnoldy don’t let us see a romance budding, it’s because Kopit gives them precious little time to accomplish it.
Dibble looks inconsistent when he tries. His Mike impresses you as the hardboiled type, one who will take in everything but not be amused or approving of anything. He is even tight in his first scenes with Liz, who, by the way, has a crush of Mike. There’s no sign of humor or of a guy who is observant and flippant but not sour or disdaining. Dibble doesn’t convey the traits Mike eventually must have to make a play for Tracy.
One minute Dibble isn’t moving Mike an inch towards being a multi-faceted character, the next he is leaping like a schoolboy over furniture to get to Tracy, It doesn’t mesh. There’s two different people Dibble portrays, and neither is Mike Connor. Not the sourpuss. (There’s a difference between cynicism and contempt.) Not the juvenile. (Mike is mature, manly, and proud.) I didn’t believe Dibble’s Mike cared for Tracy. I didn’t believe any Mike would pursue her in such an adolescent, unconvincing way. I would let the way Dibble plays the wooing Mike go unnoted if it was also entertaining, It isn’t. Like the songs, Dibble’s ardor and energy seem to come from the blue.
Arnoldy has better moments than her male counterpart does. At some point, you know she is disenchanted with George and aware of both Mike and Dexter, but again, all remains on the surface and doesn’t coalesce to make you care about the story.
Arnoldy plays drunk better than her castmates do. There are more colors to her Tracy than Scheafer or Dibble find for their too wooden Dexter or un-anchored Mike.
Of the lead performances, Arnoldy’s is the one that might jell into a complete portrayal by the time “High Society” ends its Walnut run on October 25. If she can capture the brio and command she displays in musical numbers and put them into her acting, she has the potential to become a sharp Tracy Lord. If…
Supporting players save the day. Jenny Lee Stern and Dan Schiff may be giving big performances that overplay or overemphasize their characters’ traits, but in their case, the overdoing is welcome. It gives the Walnut’s “High Society” the brightness and pep it needs to get past the inadequacy of the leads, and both Stern and Schiff settle into classic musical comedy mode after beginning their performances in almost a state of excitement.
Stern will become the shining star of the production. She gives you a character of dimension on which to concentrate, something Schiff doesn’t get the chance to do as one-purpose Willie. More than that, she finds and plays all the aspects of Liz, even to the point of Stern quieting down her character for a bit so the audience can empathize with her inability to make her affection for Mike clear to him.
Whereas Ben Dibble struggles by not knowing whether to make Mike’s commentary on the Lords’ wealth btiter or matter-of-fact, Stern finds the right tone of mild sarcasm that doesn’t wander further into disdain, contempt, or disapproval. She just makes smart, funny comments that have enough sting to show Liz is perceptive but that she has no malice. Stern’s Liz can comment snidely and humorous without being mean or grumpy, traits you don’t want in a musical comedy’s leading man.
Stern gives Liz an everywoman quality.. She can talk to and fit in with everyone, so snobbery from both camps disappears. A complete, genuine person emerges. Liz may be caustic and wry, but she’s never jealous or complaining.
In addition to all else, Stern is an excellent verbal and physical comedian. She is the best on stage in selling her lines without making them sound false or contrived. She is game for Kopit’s gambit of having Liz always on the run from the lecherous, relentless Uncle Willie, and she even knows when to be the cat as opposed to the mouse in that contest. Stern can do slapstick or hide under a table and still preserve Liz’s dignity as a woman and a professional journalist.
And the woman can sing! From a tiny frame, overwrapped and overwigged in one of Folino’s follies, comes this booming voice.
Belting is only the half of it. Stern can also sing sweetly and hit all of the comic points in Porter’s comic songs. Her rendition of “He’s the Right Guy” justifiably serves as “High Society’s” 11 o’clock number — the star turn — and rivets the Walnut audience with the kind of bravura we’ve been waiting for all night (and was coming mostly from the ensemble, with a nod to Arnoldy’s Tracy). Stern and Schiff also make a comic delight of “I’m Getting Myself Ready for You,” Stern sounding the perfect note of irony, Schiff exuding a veteran romancer’s ramminess.
For Dan Schiff, this performance as Uncle Willie is a triumphant return to the Walnut stage he dominated for years as the most expected leading man of his day.
Schiff’s gift as Uncle Willie is finding the right mixture between the aristocratic uncle who maintains social grace while making sure everyone’s rocks glass is full, 10 a.m. or not, and the randy coot who never lets any housemaid’s butt go unpinched.
Schiff is having and providing a good time. You may get a little tired of his character chasing after Liz, but like Liz, you come to expect the flirtation and secretly welcome it.
Schiff is often the sparkplug in musical numbers, providing energy and spirit that would be absent without him.
Opening scenes get a great boost from the excellent performance by Alexis Gwynn as Tracy’s younger sister, Dinah.
Last season, Gwynn showed amazing poise and the ability to touch one’s heart as Helen Keller in Jesse Cline’s production of “The Miracle Worker” for the Media Theatre, In “High Society,” she shows that at age 15, she is equally deft at comedy.
Gwynn, while being natural and totally at home in Dinah’s element, gives a complete performance as a young girl wise and observant beyond her years. She can be the pesky brat who teases Tracy or makes an apt comment to bring Tracy down to earth when she gets too full of herself. She can be conspiratorial, as when she enters en pointe in a sequence in which Diana and Tracy bedevil Mike and Liz by imitating the behavior they think the bourgeois expect from the idle upper class and making their little joke thick. She can be an activist by summoning Dexter home on the weekend of Tracy’s wedding and by spurring him to further action when she thinks Tracy is really set to marry George. Or Mike.
Gwynn will always light a stage if she can keep her line readings as crisp, appropriate, and natural as she does in “High Society.” She can convey Dinah’s spoiled, education, well-bred nature while acting and speaking in a way that is never self-conscious of showy.
Grace Gonglewski is so comfortable and correct as Margaret Lord, you don’t even know she’s acting. Gonglewski plays her matriarch with a combination of breeding and humor. Margaret always has proper posture and says the right thing, but you can see the worldly, less formal, friskier woman underneath. Gonglewski goes beyond the script, enhancing it, by the shrewdly gracious way she handles talk of her husband’s affair with a night club dancer or the way she calmly corrects Dinah or Tracy when they make a faux pas in etiquette, such as when she advises Dinah to use the word “smell” instead of :”stink.”. She is even better as the forgiving wife who is happy to have her husband by her side, in life and elsewhere, in subsequent scenes.
Gonglewski’s subtlety and humor truly denote the Margaret Lords of this world. The entire performance is a precise gem.
Dan Olmstead is not called on to do much as Seth Lord, but the few moments he is asked to act, he does so excellently, maintaining the dignity of Seth Lord while conveying his charm and humor.
The chorus, whether singing or dancing or acting as the Lords’ house staff, is always swelligant, elegant. While I wonder at some the numbers given to them — They are the ones you remember. even after the entire cast joins them, in “Well Did You Evah?” — the ensemble always acquitted themselves in the spit-spot manner you’d expect from Lord servants. Perusing the names of the crew and noticing Laura Giknis and Michael Philip O’Brien among them, it’s no wonder they’re so fine.
I have been carping on Mary Folino’s costume, and I am afraid I must keep doing so. Folino did well in choosing formal wear, but her dresses for the Lord women, especially the day frock Gonglewski’s Margaret wears at the top of the show, are all wrong in terms of period and class. No doubt a dress like the one foisted on Gonglewski was worn in the late 1930’s but by an ingénue or a sales clerk, not a society matron like Margaret Lord, who looks out of place in it.
Dexter is supposed to dress casually, but Schaefer looked more as if he stepped out of a contemporary catalog than as someone who lived in 1938 (the year Kopit’s script says “High Society’s” action takes place).
Robert Andrew Kovach’s set always left ample place to play, but it also looked a tad makeshift and incomplete. It worked best when a tapestry of Lord estate with rolling lawn in front blended with the green hedges of the Lord garden. Then, you had a sense of an entire estate. At other times, you just saw a cloth rendering of a pretty home hanging midair for no apparent reason.
Obviously, the Walnut’s “High Society” is a mixed bag. In the long run, Stern, Schiff, Gywnn, Gonglewski, and Houdina prevails over the weak telling of Barry’s original story. Megan Nicole Arnoldy helps more than she hinders. So, the show has enough spirit to surmount the wrongheaded leads and lack of involvement in the plot. “High Society” is after all a musical, and the musical elements insure a decent time Thank goodness in particular for Jenny Lee Stern and, of course, Cole Porter. Even when songs began out of the blue, the suddenness faded under the spell of a master’s touch. I still can’t comprehend the dismissive brush given to “True Love.” It should be the scene that establishes Dexter as your favorite for Tracy’s hand, and it goes nowhere. Literally and theatrically nowhere.
“High Society” runs through Sunday, October 25, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. No matinee is scheduled for Thursday, October 15. Tickets range from $95 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 1-800-982-2787 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.